The New Perspective on Paul – Part 3

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(April 2007 – Volume 13, Issue 4) 

In the NPP, justification has nothing to do with salvation and everything to do with the church, or community. Declaring that the evangelical church has misread Galatians from ancient times, Wright assures us that he and his comrades have discovered what Paul really meant,

The problem he addresses is: should his ex-pagan converts be circumcised or not?… It has to do quite obviously with the question of how you define the people of God: are they to be defined by the badges of Jewish race, or in some other way?… Who belongs to Abraham’s family… Justification, in Galatians, is the doctrine which insists that all who share faith in Christ belong at the same table, no matter what their racial differences, as together they wait for the final new creation… Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian.[1]

In other words, “it is not so much about ‘getting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you can tell who was in.’ In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology, not so much about salvation as about the church.”[2] According to Wright, Paul is not even concerned with the works-salvation issue; he is concerned about racial equality in the community. Jewish Christians were insisting that Gentile believers take on the badges of Judaism in order to join the community; Paul is saying not that Judaism was wrong but that the “badges” have changed. Under the old covenant the badges were circumcision, dietary laws and Sabbath keeping; under the new covenant it is belief in the lordship of the Messiah, baptism and joining the community. All who meet these three criteria belong at the same table.

According to the NPP Paul was not in his epistles concerned with the subject of salvation because that subject was not a major issue. Palestinian Judaism was not a merit-based religion and, therefore, the apostle was not wasting his time correcting their theology. Paul’s concern was the barriers keeping Jewish believers and Gentile believers from participating in a single community. What had to be changed was not the means of salvation but the badges of salvation in order that followers of Christ would know who was in the community. Paul changed the badges from Jewish Torah-keeping, especially circumcism, dietary laws and Sabbath-keeping, to faith, baptism, obedience to the covenant and covenant community involvement. The church would no longer be divided over racial lines but would be united by the new badges.

Thus the NPP devastates sola fide and turns salvation into the very thing it claims it does not do: a semi-Pelagian, faith-plus-human-merit-based religion. This is the identical error the Reformers recognized and battled. Far from getting it wrong, the Reformers were exactly on the mark. They saw in Roman Catholicism the same error they recognized in New Testament Judaism – both being semi-Pelagian.

The NPP system stands or falls on its understanding of Second Temple Judaism. If the Judaism of Paul’s day was acceptable to God, only in need of minor adjustments to accommodate the coming of their Messiah, then we have misunderstood Paul for centuries. But was this the case? Were the followers of Judaism already members of the covenant and only in need of a “badge” upgrade, or were they a people who had become lost in their own muddled theology and human efforts? Going to the rabbinical writings the NPP scholars see first century Judaism as a grace-based, non-legalistic religion while, as we have already seen, other scholars using the same documents disagree. But the final arbitrator should be the New Testament itself. What did Jesus and the writers of the epistles, especially Paul, think about first century Judaism?

Even a quick run through the New Testament reveals a completely different picture of Judaism, especially the leaders within Judaism, than the NPP portrays. John the Baptist called the leaders of Judaism “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7). Jesus described their righteousness as inferior and told his audience, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The Gospels record numerous conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders (E. P. Sanders dismisses the ones found in Mark 2:1-3:6; 7 and Matthew 15 by denying the historical accuracy of the Gospels). In Matthew 23 Jesus pronounces eight woes or judgments on the Pharisees – hardly sounds like all is well in first century Judaism. Our Lord even told the Pharisees that they were of their father the devil (John 8:44).[3] As a matter of fact we would be hard-pressed to find even one positive encounter or description of Jewish religious leaders in the Gospels. It was these very religious leaders who led the people in crucifying their own Messiah. In similar fashion, throughout the book of Acts we find the same adherents to Judaism rejecting the gospel and persecuting Christians.

Things do not improve for Judaism in the epistles. So convinced are the NPP theologians that Judaism was acceptable to God they see Paul’s Damascus road experience as a call, not a conversion. Paul did not change religions so much as changed his focus.[4] But that is not how Paul saw it. He accused them of being those who had caused the name of God to be blasphemed among the Gentiles (Romans 2:17-24). He said the Jews had failed in their pursuit of righteousness because they did not pursue it by faith (Romans 9:30-32). He accused them of preaching a different gospel and cursed them for it (Galatians 1:6-9). Paul calls them false brethren who had “sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ” (Galatians 2:4). In Philippians 3:2-11 the apostle recounts his efforts while in Judaism as of absolutely no value in gaining the righteousness of God through Christ.

The picture we get in the New Testament of first century Judaism is of a religion which had morphed from the teachings of the Old Testament to become a system of merit-based legalism repudiated by Jesus and Paul. That some of the rabbinical writings demonstrate faith being a component of Judaism does not significantly change the problem. Faith plus works is essentially the same heresy as works alone. Both Jesus and Paul condemned first century Judaism because it did not teach salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

Somehow the NPP misses the very obvious fact that “if the Jews in the first century had exhibited the spirituality demanded by the OT, they would not have rejected the Messiah and they would not have been judged by exile and dispersion.”[5]

Miscellaneous Views and Doctrines

In order to make the NPP “work” it becomes necessary to redefine or deny fundamental doctrines of the faith. For example, Wright gives this definition for the righteousness of God: “For the reader of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, ‘the righteousness of God’ would have one obvious meaning: God’s own faithfulness to his promises, to the covenant…. God’s righteousness is thus cognate with his trustworthiness on the one hand, and Israel ’s salvation on the other.”[6]

This is representative of what Wright does. Actually he believes that the evangelical church has missed the point of Scripture in numerous ways. Not only was Paul not primarily interested in the doctrine of salvation[7] but we have misunderstood:

  • Judaism.[8]
  • The purpose of the covenant.[9]
  • The definition of justification.[10]
  • Eschatology.[11]
  • The gospel.[12]
  • Imputation.[13]
  • Justification by faith.[14]
  • Exclusivism.[15]

Ultimately the NPP is ecumenical in nature. By eliminating and reworking the foundational truths of Scripture the NPP has reduced the requirements to become part of the covenant community to a nebulous belief in Jesus, baptism and obedience. This allows for a set of doctrines, especially that of justification, with “which Catholic and Protestant might just be able to agree on, as a result of hard ecumenical endeavor… And which declares that all who believe in Jesus belong together in the one family.”[16] As a matter of fact I have to wonder if Wright in his ecumenism is not flirting with universalism. He writes,

The point is this: the covenant between God and Israel was always designed to be God’s means of saving the whole world. It was never supposed to be the means whereby God would have a private little group of people who would be saved while the rest of the world went to hell (whatever you mean by that). Thus, when God is faithful to the covenant in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the work of the Spirit, it makes nonsense of the Pauline gospel to imagine that the be-all and end-all of this operation is so that God can have another, merely different, private little group of people who are saved while the world is consigned to the cosmic waste-paper basket.[17]

Summary

Robert Thomas, at the end of his article on the hermeneutics of the NPP offers an excellent summary of the NPP teachings. I will close my paper with a selection of a few of these:

  • First-century Judaism was not a salvation-by-works religion.
  • Until the death and resurrection of Christ, by virtue of God’s election, any physical descendant of Abraham is a member of the covenant people and thereby justified.
  • Those who maintain the covenantal nomism relationship by obedience are the ones who will be saved.
  • Paul retained his covenantal nomism after his Damascus road experience.
  • From that point on, his mission was to dispense with circumcision, Sabbath observance, and dietary restrictions of the Mosaic law as boundaries that limited who could be a member of the covenant people.
  • Guilt was not expressed in Paul’s writings, but was introduced by Augustine and Luther.
  • Justification by faith and imputed righteousness was read into Paul by Augustine, Luther, Wesley, and Calvin because of their contemporary situations.
  • Faith is not the means of justification or of joining the covenant community; it is rather a badge of covenant membership. One joins the covenant community through water baptism.
  • Final justification is based on works of obedience to the Mosaic law so that any justification a person enjoys at present is only preliminary and can be reversed.[18]

 


[1] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, ( Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 120, 121, 122, 125 (emphasis in the original).

[2] Ibid., p. 119.

[3] Robert Thomas “Hermeneutics of the New Perspective on Paul. The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 16#2; pp.299-300, (I have paraphrased Thomas’ excellent section on this subject).

[4] Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul ( Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004), p. 26.

[5]William W. Barrick, “The New Perspective and Works of the Law,” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 16 #2; p. 291.

[6] N. T. Wright, p. 96.

[7] Ibid., p. 32.

[8] Ibid., pp. 32, 35.

[9] Ibid., p. 33.

[10] Ibid., pp. 33-34.

[11] Ibid., p. 34.

[12] Ibid., pp. 40-41.

[13] Ibid., pp. 98-99.

[14] Ibid., pp. 113-114.

[15] Ibid., p. 158.

[16] Ibid., p. 158.

[17] Ibid., p. 163.

[18] Robert Thomas, pp. 315-316.

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